April 3, 2012 | Foreign Policy

What Obama Should Say When Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani Visits Washington

April 3, 2012 | Foreign Policy

What Obama Should Say When Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani Visits Washington

In my last post, I sketched out the strategic case for significantly deepening U.S.-Kurdish ties. While such a paradigm shift may take some time, a good start can be made simply by clearing out the underbrush of counter-productive policies that needlessly hinder our relations with the Kurds. During this week's visit to Washington by President Masoud Barzani, head of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, the Obama administration would be well-served by focusing on several practical deliverables:

Stop Treating the Kurds as Terrorists. Incredibly, under existing immigration law, members of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties — Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — are classified as terrorists when seeking visas to enter the United States. As modified after 9/11, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) uses a definition of terrorism so broad that virtually any resistance group that in the past engaged in armed conflict against its government is considered a so-called “Tier III” terrorist organization. Membership in such a group is automatic grounds for denial of admission to the U.S., treatment that extends to the member's family as well.

That's right: The KDP and PUK for years worked hand-in-glove with the United States to bring down the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, they served as America's most faithful allies in efforts to stabilize Iraq. And for all their trouble fighting alongside U.S. forces they got . . . well, they got labeled as terrorists, of course. As Mr. Bumble famously says in Oliver Twist, “If the law supposes that . . . [then] the law is an ass — an idiot.”

In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano exercised their discretionary authority to exempt members of the KDP and PUK from the INA's terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds on a case-by-case basis — provided they were able to satisfy officials at State and DHS that they met six criteria meant to show they were not in fact terrorists and posed no danger to U.S. security. Needless to say, the process of qualifying for the exemption is frequently long, cumbersome and — let's be frank — humiliating for people who threw their lot in completely with America, and often risked life and limb to help it succeed. And even with the exemption possibility, the slanderous classification of the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations remains, an undeserving and gratuitous insult to a proud people that have gone out of their way to align themselves openly with Washington — an all-too-rare occurrence in a Middle East where anti-Americanism is, sad to say, always in fashion.

Small consolation for the Kurds, perhaps, that the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were also once ensnared by the INA's overly-broad sweep. Thankfully, Congress acted in 2008 to pass a law that explicitly removed the ANC from treatment as a terrorist organization under the INA. Similar legislative relief has been provided to other groups who fought repressive regimes. Now, no less should be done for the Kurds. As has so often been the case when it comes to doing the right thing in matters of national security, Senator Joseph Lieberman is leading the way, crafting a possible fix to the Kurds' outrageous dilemma. The Obama administration is signaling that it will support Lieberman's effort and it should do so, wholeheartedly. A statement to that effect by President Obama when he meets Barzani would go a long way. Even better if the president in the meantime issued a directive to State and DHS instructing them to cease considering the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations for purposes of issuing visas.

Allow Visas to be Issued From Erbil. A related problem is that the U.S. Consulate in Kurdistan is not yet issuing visas. Instead, Kurds wishing to visit the United States must either take their chances by going to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (by all accounts, a nightmarish experience due to security precautions), or travel abroad to an American post in the Gulf or Turkey. On top of the hurdles already posed by the INA's restrictions, the additional time, expense, and hassle this process adds can quickly become prohibitive. The Obama administration should act soon to correct the situation, and fast-track a presidential decision to issue visas from Erbil.

Let U.S. Planes Fly to Kurdistan. Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa, Emirates, Royal Jordanian, MEA, Turkish Airlines. All of them fly regularly into the new, modern, safe Erbil International Airport. Yet, unbelievably, the Federal Aviation Administration maintains a Saddam-era regulation (SFAR 77) that prohibits any U.S. air carrier, commercial operator, or U.S.-registered aircraft from landing in Kurdistan. As anyone who has visited Erbil recently can tell you, this kind of restriction is, to put it mildly, ridiculous — especially coming from the country that actually liberated Kurdistan and is largely responsible for the considerable prosperity and security the region now enjoys. If an American businessman wants to fly the company jet to Erbil to ink a major deal, he should be allowed to do so. And if a U.S. airline believes it just might be able to turn a profit ferrying investors, workers, tourists, and Iraqi-Americans to and from Kurdistan, let them have at it. President Obama needs to issue a clear instruction to the FAA Administrator: Modify SFAR 77 so U.S. aircraft can land in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Signal that Kurdistan is Open for Business. For years, when it comes to Kurdistan, the U.S. has been hyper-sensitive to Iraqi sovereignty. That may make sense, to a degree, in matters of high politics and security. But it makes much less sense when it comes to business. Do we really want the U.S. government hinting that every major trade delegation that seeks to visit Kurdistan needs to stop in Baghdad first? Let's face it: As a market, the rest of Iraq remains a mess, a quagmire of corruption, red tape, security hazards, and endless delay where nothing gets done and no one is in charge. Kurdistan, by contrast, is an economy where things are clearly happening. It may not be pretty or perfect, but the opportunities are real, the environment is welcoming, the government is supportive, and major contracts are being struck, implemented, and enforced. The U.S. government's Baghdad-first mentality only hurts American companies, who are losing ground to their foreign competitors in the ever-expanding Kurdish market. President Obama should use the opportunity provided by President Barzani's visit to send a clear signal to business and bureaucrats alike: Get American companies to Kurdistan. Now.

Encouragingly, all of these steps and more are reportedly on the administration's agenda this week. This is the nuts and bolts of foreign policy, the small stuff that great powers do well, especially where friends are concerned, so that they can do big things later. It's important. It matters. It pays off in the long run. And where the Kurds are concerned, it's certainly the right thing to do as well. The administration should have our support in doing it.

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